You have friends all over the world, you just haven’t met them yet

This summer column exlores the viral tendency of ‘doing good’ and the untapped potential for happiness

donors are friends you haven't met yet

donors are friends you haven’t met yet

and wellbeing that philanthropy has to offer. And what non-profit executives can learn from couchsurfers about the Pay it Forward principle. Are we, at the low point in donor confidence, now finally going to work on truly connecting with our donors?

The holidays are on our mind. Sailing boats on the water, a glass of rosé or beer, white bodies in the sand and the sporties among us hiking. This year I will take my two big sons to Barcelona. Swapped my home with a Catalan family for their Modernist appartment in Eixample.

Even if you have no house to swap nor a dime to spend, you don’t have to sit and home and sulk: go couchsurfing and spend the night on a hospitable stranger’s sofa for free. This phenomenon is particularly popular among young people. The only premise is that the surfer and the host/ess are flexible and trusting and that they expect a positive experience. Then, oh wonder, it almost always goes well. These last years, thanks to the crisis, all sorts of collaborative consumption are on the rise: individuals share or swap a meal, a drill, a car or a spare bed via social media. It’s a win-win: personal contacts with your neighbours, lower costs and cohesion in the community.

Couchsurfing stems from the Pay it Forward principle. The catch-phrase “if your want to couchsurf, offer your own couch first” examplifies this. In 1994, Robert Cialdini described how powerful this principle works in human social relations. If someone offers us a service, without asking anything in return, it creates a ‘social debt’. You can balance that debt by paying a service to someone yourself. It is interesting that our need to interact in this way, is reinforced as we come in cotact with this phenomenon. Thus, our ‘doing good’  has a viral effect: we infect others. A ‘Morbilli Philanthropii’  (measles) virus, so to speak.  Cialdini’s book ‘Influence’, The Power of Persuasion’ was very hot amongst fundraisers in the mid-nineties. But, aside from some give-aways to lure in new donors, have we réally done something with the fundamental notion that philanthropy par excellence offers the tools to focus on the powerful, positive feeling of human connection? Looking at my own backyard, the Netherlands, I don’t think so.

Trust first to be trusted. We ask this principle from our donors and funders, but as a sector we are as distrustful as can be. We respond as if cornered at the first critical-open question. However understandable that is – we are afraid to damage our image and feel the heat of the competition – it clearly gives the wrong signal to the donor. She asks herself, suspiciously:”are they hiding something?”.

Each year around this time I scan the new annual reports. What always strikes me is: successes are communicated extensively, but just a few organisations show us what they are really made of. Fortunately, there are those who take a different approach. Take the annual report of Wakker Dier. Clear goals and concrete information on realized impact. Next to success an honest review of what did not go well. Ánd a very transparant story about policies and planned fundraising investments for the coming years. This reader’s reaction: I feel involved!

Back in 2005 at a masterclass I lectured for Context, I asked the adience “What revolution can we unchain in the ‘non-profit’ sector if we measure its impact primarily by the donors’ sense of making a difference, of human connecting and belonging?”.  Not just in monetary terms. Now, don’t start nagging that that sense of fulfilment cannot really be measured. I understand that this is very difficult, but I am talking about a radically different perspective from which we will source all our fundraising efforts. I dare claim there is a world for us to conquer here. Rather than bungling in the margins, take parameters that measure our impact on the powerful, positive feeling of human connectedness that philanthropy holds. The time has come. We have to, since consumer and donor trust and loyalty are at a historic low. What are you waiting for?

Back to your plans for the holidays. What do you do as non-profit executive on summer break? My advice: let this question meander freely, while idling in your hammock: “Am I finally going to work on building a meaninful and strong connection with my donors, our often unknown friends all over the country/world?”. And when you return, relaxed and all, get to work with your team and mean it.

This column is part of a series in which Corine Aartman freely explores the theme of trust and its relevance for social change organisations.

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